Murder of the Bumble Bees

Bumble Bee Death

Many thanks to Food Democracy Now for the use of this photo from their Facebook page

It wasn’t supposed to happen that way.

Last Sunday as National Pollinator Week kicked off, it was supposed to be a series of celebrations and educational events around the country to bring awareness to the important role that pollinators play in our food supply and the health of our environment.

Instead over 50,000 Bumble Bees lay dead in a Target parking lot in Wilsonville, OR.

The Bumble Bee die-off was reported to the Xerces Society, who issued a statement, including this quote:

Rich Hatfield, a biologist with the Xerces Society, estimates that over 50,000 bumble bees were killed, likely representing more than 300 wild colonies. “Each of those colonies could have produced multiple new queens that would have gone on to establish new colonies next year. This makes the event particularly catastrophic.”

And various news organizations began to pick up the story.

Sadly, many of these news organizations used photos of non-native honey bees to illustrate their stories when in reality the dead bees were native Bumble Bees, causing confusion and the spread of misinformation. Thankfully, Dr. Beatriz Moisset, our team member at Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens was on the case, working tirelessly to correct each story as it came out.

As the story unfolded, fingers were pointed at a landscape contractor who had sprayed 55 European Linden trees in this parking lot with the pesticide Safari, a neonicotinoid, in an attempt to get rid of aphids, in clear violation of  the label directions that clearly state that this is not to be used when trees are blooming.

Safari is a neonicotinoid insecticide, of the type that was recently banned by the European Union, but still legal here in the US. Safari is manufactured by a company called Valent.

As Grist reports about National Pollinator Week:

The annual event is sponsored by a long list of companies, among them many pesticide manufacturers. That includes Valent.

As the week wore on the news continued to be grim, as reported by Katu:

The trees were still attracting bees Wednesday but soon they dropped to the ground and struggled for their last breaths.

The Xerces Society, working together with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, collected samples of the bees and sent them to a lab for analysis:

ODA has confirmed that the bee deaths are directly related to a pesticide application on the linden trees conducted last Saturday, June 15 to control aphids. The pesticide product Safari was used in that application. Safari, with its active ingredient dinotefuran, is part of a group of insecticides known as neonicotinoids. According to investigators, the insecticide was originally applied to control aphids, which secrete a sticky residue while feeding, and can be a nuisance to parked cars. Dinotefuran and other neonicotinoids are a relatively new group of insecticides that are long-lasting in plant tissues. Because of this, the scientists are now concerned about whether the trees will still be toxic next year when they flower again. Emergency measures to prevent further bee deaths were taken today by staff from the ODA, Xerces, and the City of Wilsonville. By the end of the day all of the trees will be covered with large nets to prevent bumble bees and other pollinators from reaching the flowers.

So there we have it. Another chemical known as neonicotinoids (banned in Europe) that is killing off our native bees and putting our food supply in danger.

Makes it very easy to have a villain to boycott, both the manufacturer of this deadly chemical as well as the landscaping company who couldn’t be bothered to read the directions on the label.

And I agree. These chemicals are very dangerous, and we need to take a very close look at why we are continuing to use them when other countries have decided that they are so dangerous, both to human health and the health of our food supply, and the survival of our native pollinators, that they have banned their use.

We also need to hold accountable those people who knowingly apply these toxic chemicals and neonicontinoids in clear violation of their intended use.

And do we really want these chemical companies greenwashing themselves to make them look acceptable by sponsoring events like National Pollinator Week? Kind of defeats the purpose, don’t you think? This reminds me of when the National Wildlife Federation thought it was a good idea to partner with Scotts Miracle Gro, the US distributor of the toxic chemical Roundup. And that didn’t turn out so good for them.

But this may not be the whole story. And as much as we want to blame and boycott the purveyors of toxic chemicals and neonicontinoids that harm our environment, we can’t do that by ignoring the rest of the story.

The other facts that may be involved in this huge die-off of so many Bumble Bees has been unfolding at the Xerces Society Facebook page, and championed again by Beatriz Moisset and Janet Davis:

Janet Davis:

If this tree was not sprayed, the nectar of the European tilias is most likely the cause for this, as it is in many places throughout the world. From Lime Trees and Basswoods, by Donald Pigott (pg 337) 
“Large numbers of bees are occasionally found stupefied, dying or dead, on the ground beneath flowering trees of Tilia tomentosa and of T. x euchlora, usually in hot, dry weather, and particularly under trees planted in urban streets, gardens and parks in central and western Europe.”

Generally a high proportion of casualties in England are the two common visitors to the flowers, Bombus terrestris and Bombus leucorum, but death of honey bees (Apis mellifera) can also occur. Below trees of T. tomentosa planted at Bonn in Germany, Madel (1977) collected a sample of 457 dead and weakened bees, of which 72% were Bombus terrestris, 21% B. hypnorum, 4% B. lapidarius, and 3% B. pratorum. The majority were carrying almost no pollen in their pollen baskets, but had nectar-filled honey stomachs.

In experiments, Madel found that bumble bees, when enclosed with flowering shoots of T. tomentosa, collected nectar and died within 3 hours. This also occurred when flowers had their stamens and petals removed, leaving only sepals and nectaries. It seemed clear that nectar was the source of a toxin, but the precise cause is still uncertain.”.

Beatriz Moisset:

Janet, thanks for finding this information. I have been trying to find more on toxic nectar. We should look further into this. Other plants also produce toxic nectar. Too bad the Xerces Society is not updating this part of the story, although I am sure they are looking into it. We’ll see how it ends. I am in favor of cutting down the non-native linden trees. There are plenty of natives that can do a better job.

Follow the rest of this exchange at Xerces Facebook page

It appears that even though toxic amounts of these lethal chemicals were found in the dead Bumble Bees, toxic nectar from these non-native trees may have also played a part in this massive bee die-off, but we may never know because it’s so easy to get people upset at yet another story about the dangers of these nasty chemicals and neonicontinoids.

So what can we learn from this?

Several things:

  • It’s very easy to hate the chemical companies, but don’t jump to automatic conclusions
  • Please, if you feel you must use the chemicals that are killing off our native bees, READ the label instructions very carefully
  • Get all of the facts
  • Non-native plants may be causing much more damage in our landscapes than we think

Find out more about Janet Davis, and also Dr. Beatriz Moisset, and make sure to check out Beatriz’ articles at Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens.

Many thanks to Food Democracy Now for the use of this photo from their Facebook page

Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.

© 2013, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    It’s so important to us not to have aphid’s “sticky residue” on our cars that Target hires a landscape contractor who sprays Safari on non-native trees and kills some 50,000 native bumblebees as a result? That’s just beyond sick. It’s species genocide. (Yes, I know that Tilia can have toxic nectar, but I notice that the numbers killed by the nectar in the discussion you reported are several orders of magnitude smaller than those for the genocide at the Target parking lot.) I am sad for the bees and sad for our inability to understand why nature matters. Guess I’ll just keep working at change, one yard at a time….
    Susan J. Tweit recently posted..Tool Girl Progress: bathroom counter

  2. says

    Carole, thanks for reporting this story so comprehensively. I find it hard to believe that the massive die off immediately after spraying will be found to be a coincidence. Certainly we will wait to see what unfolds, but also certainly, we need to wake up as a society and realize that we are living in a smaller and smaller aquarium here on the planet Earth and we eating, drinking, and breathing everything we dump into it. I second Susan’s thought, which was my first thought when reading about the article originally – they did this because of aphids? Reminded me of the war that happened in Florida a few years ago, when people complained that mature (big, shady!) oak trees in their neighborhood were dropping “messy” acorns in their driveways. Agree with you, too, we can’t hate the chemical companies, we asked for them, we pay for them, they are giving us what we want. We have to change our way of thinking if we are going to survive.

    • says

      What ever happened to washing aphids off with soapy water? (always worked for me on roses) And, if native trees had been planted instead, would they still have gotten aphids, or does that pest just go for ornamentals, I find myself wondering. You are so right: we have to change our way of thinking.. and not want what the chemical companies are selling in the first place.
      Kathy Vilim recently posted..Outside My Bedroom Window: Camping on the Beach Again

  3. says

    Thank you for this blog post. I did read about it in the Xerces Society email but you’ve added new information about toxic nectar, which needs more research. This is a horrible, sickening, story; however, it has the elements of a teaching tale. Let’s use it to promote awareness of bees and their habitat needs.

  4. Jennifer says

    We aren’t going to stop killing everything until it is ALL gone. Not only are we killing our precious resources but we are slowly killing our selves. GMO’s will be the death of everything! Monsanto should be shut down!

  5. Dee says

    I am outraged over this!
    This toxic pesticide was applied against the label directions. It wasn’t supposed to be applied when the trees were flowering. Even sadder, it was applied because people don’t want the sticky substance from aphids, to drip from the trees onto their cars. Really? Wash your car if you don’t like it!
    These trees need to be CUT DOWN! They produce a toxic nectar which also kills bees! They’re non native trees, from Europe. Plant native trees in place of these non native toxic nectar trees! ! How irresponsible to plant them in the first place!

  6. says

    Without meaning to sound dramatic, (but it likely will), this is the most important issue affecting the human race at this time in history. The death of bees is more important than peak oil or even terrorism, and in my opinion, it’s on par with maintaining a fresh water supply, as we all need food and water to survive.
    Unfortunately so many people still don’t grasp the severity of how deeply the loss of pollinators will affect our food supply. Thanks for spreading the word. A great article, and I really enjoy your blog.
    Karen Sloan recently posted..Flowering Friday – Sharing some garden blooms


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